Firefall, the massively multiplayer class-based shooter from Red 5, entered open beta last week, so naturally we've quickly fired up our oversized jet boots and boosted into the action. The cel-shaded world full of dangerous critters and rampaging squads of nightmarish cyborgs is now available to explore and conquer, with anyone able to sign up for free and get involved. PvE and PvE are fully supported, featuring plenty to see and do (and kill) without having to spend a single penny.
Our resident MMO specialist Carl, will likely be taking a closer look at the juicy details following an in-depth exploration of the closed beta ... but as a relative newcomer to the franchise, I'm taking the opportunity to discuss my three main initial observations of Firefall from a new player's perspective.
Red 5's effort is definitely fun and engaging, but its reliance on an outrageously convoluted crafting system could well become a major sticking point.
Firefall Is Fun
A basic observation, but it needs to be made. Despite having many features in common with MMORPGs, Red 5 have consistently reminded us that Firefall is a fast-paced shooter first and foremost; an accessible team-based experience built around airborne combat and moment-to-moment cooperation. Forget tab targeting, because you'll primarily interact with Firefall's world via the barrel of a pleasingly oversized gun.
A lavish CG cutscene introduces you to the basic premise, a world gone to hell after being devastated by a prototype FTL engine. Earth has been ravaged by mutations and warring factions, yet retains a savage beauty conveyed via sharp and attractive cel-shaded visuals. As a hard-bitten ARES mercenary, players are punted straight into the deep end, tasked with making Brazil safe by killing everything that moves. With ferocious insects, horrific undead cyborgs and hostile ground troops aplenty, there's certainly no shortage of targets.
Well-crafted combat tutorials introduce you to a selection of five classes, known here as Battleframes. Packing unique weapons and skills, there's a niche for pretty much everyone. Assault troops batter down foes with explosives and assault rifles, while Engineers deny territory with turrets and resupply allies. Stealthy Recon troops snipe from mid-range and tag enemy forces, backed up by Biotech medics who thump out grenades when they're not patching everyone up. Tanks will doubtlessly favour the Dreadnaught, who boasts a range of crowd control abilities and a ruddy great minigun.
Regardless of which class you pick - pleasingly, you're free to mix and match at any time - the action-packed gameplay is fast and satisfying. After choosing a potential mission or setting off into the world in search of resources and trouble, you'll quickly sprint and fly around the environment using your boot-mounted jumpjets, bringing the pain just like any top tier shooter. Secondary fire modes (such as a deployable shield or ironsights) is mapped to the right mouse button, while skills are effortlessly accessible on the number keys. Whether you're mixing it up in close combat, lobbing cryo grenades, hovering over a hilltop to snipe priority targets or keeping your squadmates alive in the thick of the action, Firefall is quick slick and tremendously engaging.
Firefall's world already feels unpredictable and dynamic, with no township truly safe or developed unless players cooperate to defend and upgrade them, and opportunities to assist other players in their endeavours. However, there's still plenty of work to be done. PvE still drastically needs fleshing out with more missions, enemies and events, while many weapons don't feel particularly impactful to fire. Of course, this is to be expected, because we're talking about an open beta here...
Firefall Is Improving, Fast
The first day of Firefall's open beta was a bit of a mess, to put it mildly. After being dumped into an unlit world with an absent quest string, it was difficult to make head or tail of the whole thing. I lost count of the number of times I had to relog in a vain effort to just complete the tutorials. However, Red 5 are busting a gut to fix all of these issues and address bug reports, with new features and server-side hotfixes improving the experience each and every day.
There's still plenty of issues out there, from quests not triggering properly to connection issues and upgrades refusing to register. But hey, this is a beta. A real beta. Not one of those glorified demos. Identifying problems is the whole point.
That said, opening up the microtransaction store isn't a particularly classy move. Is this really an open beta or a soft launch, Red 5?
Firefall Is Confusing & Infuriating
Shooters, RPGs, MMOs and other games with progression systems tend to stick to a familiar formula. You earn money and/or experience to get cool stuff. Though a gross oversimplification, it's a tried-and-true mechanism that we all find incredibly satisfying to partake in. Firefall, on the other hand, features one of the most obnoxiously obtuse and unnecessarily convoluted economies I've possibly ever seen.
Its two main currencies are experience and Crystite, both of which you'll need to spend on a selection of basic tiered battleframe upgrades. Experience doesn't lead to increased character levels, instead acting as Firefall's equivalent of gold or credits. This at least is relatively easy to process, but when you want to make sweeping upgrades to your Battleframe's abilities and weapons, things get significantly more complicated.
Say, for example, you fancy unlocking a cryo grenade and improving its effectiveness. Common sense dictates that you should be able to buy ranks with experience, and that initially seems to be the case. You'll unlock the Cryo Grenade skill slot, equip the stock version... and then realise that there's no option to upgrade it.
Oh no. That would be too easy. Instead, you'll have to traipse over to a fabricator that's usually a fair distance from the Battleframe garage, then research the next tier of upgrades by spending your valuable Crystite via a tortuously arcane interface. Can you buy it now? Nope. Then you'll have to fabricate the upgrade, which requires specific components. Can you buy those? Fat chance. You'll have to assemble them out of mineral resources and odd fragments of otherwise useless technology randomly dropped by enemies. All of which require you to blunder around in the vain hope of bumping into what you need, or expending enormous amounts of time mining and refining. The 'Thumpers' you'll use to extract mineral resources have to be fabricated themselves. Finally you'll return, construct the components, construct the upgrade, wait for it to build (a potentially lengthy process in and of itself)... and then run back to a battleframe garage to finally equip it. "Faff" doesn't even begin to cover it.
You'll need to repeat this time-consuming procedure for every single upgrade, and just for fun, your new gear also degrades. Potentially making you repeat the process ad infinitum.
The major problems are threefold. First of all, new players are quickly showered in poorly-explained jargon and inordinate amounts of dull busywork. Finding out how to just get a better gun can require hitting up an FAQ or haranguing fellow players on region chat, which is not ideal for a game that's trying to bill itself as a competitive shooter rather than an MMORPG. I suspect that many players will find themselves quitting in favour of games that let you spend more time shooting and less time traipsing through menus or seeking a particular mineral resource. Secondly, Firefall lacks that compelling 'loot drop' gameplay we're used to. Getting a bit of bent gun barrel or piece of useless tat doesn't grant the same satisfaction of netting a powerful new gun or upgrade, especially since it's never clear what each drop can actually be used for. What's this bizarrely-named thing I just picked up? Is it useful? Why should I care?
Finally, rather than a pay for convenience business model, Firefall seems to encourage players to pay to avoid staggering inconvenience with premium currency. I'm not entirely sure how sustainable this is.
For me, this reeks of a game being in beta too long and developers simply assuming that everyone is automatically au fait with their mechanics, as opposed to thinking about the crucial new player experience. I daresay that Firefall veterans will quickly jump on me and tear this to shreds, and I absolutely encourage you to do so (second opinions and new perspectives are incredibly important) - but at the very least, surely we need a single upgrade and fabrication menu that lets you build, research and equip items all on the same screen? Remember that, as a free to play game, Firefall will need a steady stream of new players to survive, who'll ideally stick around rather than being turned away with inordinate barriers to progression.
Ultimately, though, I have to refer you back to my first and second points. Firefall is fun. Firefall is improving. And, critically, it's free. There's lot to look forward to from the ambitious shooter, but Red 5 definitely has their work cut out. Stay tuned for more detailed coverage as Firefall evolves during the beta process.
And, erm, why not give it a go?